This essay originally was published on March 9, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No. 158: A metaverse content strategy glow up."
How many times have you preached the value of content strategy to a client, only for your words to fall on deaf ears, no matter how many data points, case studies, and best practices you bring?
Since the beginning of the transition away from glossy magazines to digital publishing, the fashion industry has been exceptionally averse to discussions of digital content strategy. Initially, industry leaders were too busy grappling with the mess created by being last at the table when it came to web and ecommerce adoption. In particular, luxury—that rarefied part of fashion that almost belies definition except through ideas of scarcity and exclusivity—has been notoriously skeptical of digital due to worries of brand dilution, ceding control over content and products, and an overall fear of tech.
Like any industry that deprioritizes content, the outcome for fashion was an even bigger mess: content production was passed off to junior staff on siloed teams or managed by external agencies, leading to a cacophonic volume of low-quality content with inconsistent brand messaging across channels.
When the pandemic forced brands across reluctant industries to go digital practically overnight, fashion and luxury brands were faced with a choice: embrace e-commerce or get left behind. Post-pandemic, while some fashion and luxury brands have started to refocus their efforts on rebuilding their physical stores, others adopted a different tack and jumped on the latest tech trend: the metaverse.
But executives quickly realized they had no idea how this trend fit together with other digital tactics, such as e-commerce, social media, and programmatic advertising. And they gradually became more open to conversations about the merits of content strategy to help streamline, centralize, and manage content efforts at scale and to create attenuated, targeted brand messaging across channels.
Whatever competencies fashion and luxury brands lacked during the first wave of the internet era, they are compensating for by being the undeniable first movers in the metaverse. Through this strange, almost illogical move, considering luxury’s initial slow adoption of digital, there are many positive lessons for other industries to learn regarding how to plan and be ready for these future technologies.
Understanding the what, why, and how of fashion’s investments in the metaverse from a content strategy perspective provides a rich source of case studies, best practices, and competitive research for business decision makers and strategists alike.
Luxury goods, digital venues
In 2021, a virtual Gucci Dionysus bag created and sold in the online gaming platform Roblox made headlines because it was purchased for 475 Robux, the equivalent of $4,115 — $700 less than the physical version available in stores. The virtual bag, developed for the Gucci Virtual Garden in Roblox, could only be used digitally within the Roblox platform.
The confluence of scarcity, novelty and established branding in an already-popular virtual world made Gucci’s bag the biggest digital-only luxury purchase in this initial NFT and metaverse hype. While the value quotient of digital collectibles remains to be seen, this first generation of digital collectibles expanded the possibilities for luxury content—and content strategies—in the metaverse.
The fashion industry’s fascination with the metaverse did not happen overnight. Luxury brands, in particular, are among the few companies with the budgets to experiment with nascent, constantly-evolving new technologies without losing ground or risking brand dilution.
The multiple horizons of the metaverse for luxury fashion
To take a tiny step back, when we refer to the “metaverse,” we are not viewing it as a monolithic concept owned by a single company, but rather as a decentralized set of immersive, virtual experiences. Or as Cathy Hackl put it, “virtual shared experiences that happen in virtual spaces, but also in the physical world.”
Web3, on the other hand, is a wholly different concept encapsulating a decentralized, token-based set of digital systems built on the blockchain, and is often connected to cryptocurrencies that are focused on ownership, co-creation, and community.
Fashion is approaching the metaverse and immersive environments as the next wave for digital brand experiences. Projects include everything from avatar skins, real-world wearables, and digital collectibles to immersive runway shows, conferences, exhibitions, and social engagements and “phygital” or dual physical-digital activations.
Fashion weeks in virtual worlds
Despite the proclamations of a “metaverse winter” after the late 2022 crypto crash, the world of Web3 and the metaverse are not dead for fashion and luxury — at least they weren’t at recent New York and London Fashion Weeks, which featured a series of metaverse and Web3 activations and events to accompany IRL runway collections.
Some designers simply released a series of digital collectibles or NFTs as virtual versions of their physical runway collections as part of a brand loyalty or incentive program. Others took a more democratized approach, creating immersive experiences and a slew of dynamic content for runway shows hosted dually IRL and in the metaverse. Designer Vivienne Tam showcased her Autumn-Winter 2023 collection physically in New York and virtually in the metaverse. Her metaverse show included a red carpet, backstage access, and afterparty along with live video portals at the physical runway show that allowed attendees to interact between the physical and the virtual.
By far the largest fashion event dedicated to the metaverse and Web3 is Decentraland Metaverse Fashion Week (DMVFW). Hosted in the platform Decentraland (which is accessible via any desktop or laptop and does not require a VR headset), the inaugural DMVFM event in 2022 was innovative, experience-focused consumer product launch—with all the highlights and glitches one would expect in a new space.
Like all new tech, getting the product, user experience, and marketing right at a virtual fashion week takes time. Post-event media coverage was quick to note all of the elements that did not work. People complained about the poor quality of the graphics, the randomness and lack of purpose within the shows and exhibitions, and the glitching and latency of the platform itself. Then there were the poor sales, such as an NFT version of Michelle Obama’s Jason Wu dress created by metaverse firm DressX that was priced at the absurd price of 8.5 ETH (approx 13,600 USD at the time) and received fewer bids than expected.
But as these events evolve, what improvements and innovations will we see in the next event? DMVFW23 takes place March 28–31, 2032, and promises new developments from a content and branding perspective. Many of the technical issues from previous iterations will likely be resolved. As content strategists, we are curious to see how the evolution of user experience and consumer behavior as these events mature.
What non-fashion brands can learn about content strategy from the fashion metaverse
So, what lessons do fashion and luxury initiatives offer for content strategists and brands across industries as they venture into the metaverse and Web3? There are many best practices for content and UX already surfacing from these early fashion metaverse experiments.
- Experimentation is everything. If nothing else, the first wave of fashion and luxury metaverses highlights the value of experimentation for early adopters to learn, measure, assess, and share what works and what does not within these ever-evolving Web3 and metaverse technologies and beyond.
- Expert involvement and collaboration is key. Brands that “win” within these spaces team up with cutting-edge partners to deliver the right experience to the right people. Brands enter these emerging digital spaces through collaborations with tech, gaming, and other critical partners who are either closer to the technology or closer to the target demographic of a specific campaign. For example, in 2022 streetwear brand Kith’s brought their creative fashion design expertise to the NFT collective Invisible Friends, which created the one-of-a-kind NFTs for purchase.
- Be prepared to interact with the communities you cultivate. Whether you call it an environment, experience, or event, a metaverse is, at its core, multi-dimensional, experiential content. Without this understanding, brands lose out on meaningful engagements with target audiences.
Opportunities for content co-creation, in particular, are gold, such as initiatives like those offered by sportswear giants Nike and adidas, which have run various competitions to crowdsource sneaker designs, giving enthusiasts the chance to design a pair of virtual and IRL shoes. When it comes to building community, it is critical to have a well-curated, authentic micro-community platform managed by an actual person, whether on Discord or Mastodon (like the FashionSocial.host instance, the only server dedicated to fashion and luxury in the Fediverse, which, full disclosure, is managed by our consulting team).
- The metaverse requires a concomitantly extroverted and introverted methodology from a content and UX perspective. Content strategists working in emerging tech should think about non-linear, multi-spatial user journeys to invite community and shared experiences alongside paths for individual discovery. At what points throughout the journey do audiences need content to guide them and add dimension to what they’re seeing? When do they interact and socialize with others?
- Quality will always and forever matter when it comes to content. Differentiated, dynamic content, authentic storytelling, and community engagement are critical to attract and retain audiences at every stage of their metaverse journey. Audiences do not mind being sold to when that effort is accompanied by surprise, care, and delight. What turns most audiences off are boring, traditional broadcast marketing approaches that don't offer any incentive for engaging with their content.
- Cross-platform interoperability matters. Winning brands tend to be the ones that offer as much transferability and customizability across platforms as possible.
For brands and retailers, the metaverse and Web3 require a different way of thinking and asking questions about consumer experience. It is no longer a linear model of “how do we market our product to consumers?” The whole concept of a metaverse is holistic, even recursive. It is a succession of experiences, an immersive space in which brands and consumers can interact, exchange, and build stories together.
Regarding immersive experiences, brands need an articulated position consistent with their vision, values, and messaging on other channels so audiences understand that they are interacting with the same brand. For retail to succeed in a metaverse environment, brand experiences must be narratively driven, humanized, and, most importantly, seamless; an intuitive, even familiar, exchange of goods between brands and consumers.
What’s next for fashion and luxury in Web3 and the metaverse? Only time will tell. If recent fashion and luxury activations are representative, it will be a more experiential and democratized future, full of beautiful ideas and experiences.
Jessica Quillin, PhD is the Co-Founder and Principal for It’s A Working Title, LLC, a boutique agency and think tank focused on content strategy and research for fashion, luxury, and the experience economy. Jessica is an experienced content strategist, published author, and the former Fashion Editor for Glass Magazine. She has an extensive background in fashion, luxury, and retail, including strategy consulting and magazine editorial work with a range of brands, designers, and celebrities.